We have a race problem here in the U.S. Almost daily, we hear of cops being called on African Americans for taking a nap, waiting in a store, grilling in the park, buying shampoo, or playing golf too slowly.
But the problem goes much deeper than unchecked racial bias. We tolerate a system that robs entire communities of their men, and doesn’t guarantee their right to a fair trial. We turn a blind eye to the still well-funded forces trying to deprive black people of the right to vote. Time and again, we fail to sanction cops who kill people for essentially being black.
How do we still live in a society where a full 14% of us don’t have equal rights – in 2018?
It’s an affront on a moral level. But just as importantly, the inequality of some Americans is an affront to the citizenry writ large. We are not a free and democratic society unless it is free and democratic for all, and since it is not, none of us are truly guaranteed these freedoms.
As someone deeply disturbed by these issues, left-wing political concepts like identity politics and intersectionality have always held an emotional appeal for me. Intersectionality’s primary insight, that a person existing at the crossroads of multiple layers of oppression is therefore multiply oppressed, is obviously true. And identity politics, or the idea that there is much to be gained from building a politics around a shared racial, gender, sexual or religious identity, seems natural and fitting in a society like America that reduces us to that which makes us most vulnerable. Not only is it fitting, but it’s proven effective. Identity politics has had some huge and undeniable wins, including affirmative action and marriage equality to name just two.
The wins of intersectionality are harder to come by. And increasingly, its failings have become more and more apparent. As a paradigm, intersectionality has failed Jews, both as victims of oppression and as welcome advocates for those whose need is greater. This failure is both evidence of why it’s a flawed model, but also a glimpse at the path the left should choose instead.
In order to best fight racial injustice, I believe we should shift from focusing on identity to focusing on rights, as proposed by Hannah Arendt in “Origins of Totalitarianism”. Rather than focusing on histories of oppression, let us instead look to a future of citizenry, where we each come with a public self devoted to protecting our civil liberties and those of our fellow citizens, rather than a private self rooted in an identity that not all share.
Our ability to successfully fight systematic injustice ironically hinges on our ability to recapture a collective view of ourselves as Americans. That is the only way that we with more privilege can truly lend ourselves to fight for those with less.
Recently, in a Philadelphia Starbucks, two black men were waiting for a friend to arrive when they were arrested. The café’s manager called the police on them.
@Starbucks The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing. pic.twitter.com/0U4Pzs55Ci— Melissa DePino (@missydepino) April 12, 2018
The footage was enraging. In addition to the despicable and needless humiliation of two men who were minding their own business, the video perfectly encapsulated how quickly racial bias translates into the unjust and unequal treatment of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement.
Starbucks’ CEO apologized, and the company announced that it would be shuttering over 8,000 company-owned stores to provide anti-bias training to all its employees. Soon after, the Anti-Defamation League was named as one of the organizations that would be assisting.
Founded in 1913, the ADL bills itself as America’s “premier civil rights/human relations organization.” Its tagline, “We protect the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all,” encapsulates its dual mission, to fight anti-Semitism “and all forms of bigotry.”
I was proud to learn that the ADL would be participating in Starbucks’ attempt to right its wrong, proud that a Jewish organization would be at the forefront of training people to be less racist.
“Honored to be assisting @Starbucks in implementing #antibias education,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, tweeted. “This effort needs to be about creating lasting change. Starbucks is committed for long haul and ADL will be there every step of the way.”
But the ADL would not be there even one step of the way.
As soon as the news came out, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, Linda Sarsour wrote, a message on Facebook explaining her dismay.
“Starbucks almost had me on their anti-bias training for all employees UNTIL I heard ADL was enlisted as one of the orgs to build their anti-bias curriculum,” wrote Sarsour. “An anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian organization that peddles islamophobia and attacks America’s prominent Muslim orgs and activists and supports/sponsors US law enforcement agents to travel and get trained by Israeli military.”
And Tamika Mallory, another Women’s March leader, tweeted about it too.
#Starbucks is NOT serious about doing right by BLACK people! #boycottstarbuckspic.twitter.com/cjpDAXesCC— Tamika D. Mallory (@TamikaDMallory) April 17, 2018
“The ADL is CONSTANTLY attacking black and brown folks,” Mallory wrote.
Of course, Mallory and Sarsour weren’t entirely wrong. Their posts no doubt referred to the ADL’s questionable history of gathering information and even spying on people perceived to be anti-Semitic or extremists. A 1993 lawsuit charged the ADL with a “wide-ranging network of unlawful surveillance” directed at Arab-Americans and other pro-Palestinian groups (the case ended in a settlement that contained no admission of wrongdoing). The ADL also opposed an Islamic culture center in lower Manhattan proposed in 2010. And it sends U.S. law enforcement to Israel to learn counter-terrorism from Israeli intelligence, a fact that is particularly galling to activists who point out Israel’s embrace of racial profiling.
What Mallory and Sarsour ignored was the fact that the ADL is one of the largest providers of anti-bias education programming in the country. Its programs reach 1.5 million schoolchildren — and 15,000 law enforcement officials — every year.
In fact, apart from the law enforcement exchange programs, most of the ADL’s infractions come from its past. Its current leader, Greenblatt, publicly announced that if Trump were to institute a Muslim registry, “Americans of all races & faiths should resist by including themselves,” and his name would be the first on it.
If there’s a tension at the ADL’s heart, between being a Jewish organization and a civil rights one, between fighting anti-Semitism in particular, and fighting for the rights of all Americans, it’s one that Greenblatt has been trying to navigate away from the particularist and towards the universal, while remaining true to the ADL’s mission.
In that sense, Greenblatt reflects the majority of American Jews. The 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 56% of Jews said that working for justice and equality is essential to being Jewish, with fully 69% saying that “leading an ethical and moral life” is central to their Jewish identity.
And yet, in social justice circles, Jews are often accused of “centering” themselves, or of not showing up. It’s common to hear criticism about Jews leaning too hard on the history of marching at Selma, with a “what have you done for me lately” sentiment.
But after the Starbucks fiasco, the ADL did what they were supposed to do: They showed up.
And they were sent packing. A week after Sarsour and Mallory’s posts, an article came out in Politico announcing that the ADL would no longer be leading the training.
The ADL does not represent all Jews. Its police exchange program leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many worried about law enforcement’s role in systemic racism, as does their insistence on being pro-Israel, which alienates many Americans in need of civil rights protection. (On Monday, Greenblatt attended the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, where one of the speakers was Robert Jeffress, a pastor the ADL itself denounced for claiming that all Jews will go to hell.) Nor does Greenblatt, who makes $545,441 a year, need me to defend him.
And yet, the Starbucks episode encapsulated for me a tension at the heart of intersectionality that comes up again and again.
Just weeks before denouncing the ADL, Sarsour and Mallory individually and the Women’s March as an organization refused to sever ties with Louis Farrakhan after he yet again made anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks. Mallory was called out for having attended an event where Farrakhan called Jews his enemies, and blamed them for transgenderism; but when she was asked to denounce him, she doubled down. And when the Women’s March finally released a statement weeks later, it was anemic and non-committal. Explicitly referencing intersectionality, the statement only offered, “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles.”
Anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism and white supremacy are and always will be indefensible.
Please read our statement: pic.twitter.com/bRFqAGf81t— Women’s March (@womensmarch) March 6, 2018
It was a shocking moral failure, and ever since, the Women’s March has been hemorrhaging support, especially among Jews.
This is more than ironic. It is indicative of a fundamental flaw on the left – its eagerness to find fault with Jews while being unwilling to acknowledge anti-Semitism.
It’s true that white Jews are hardly facing the same kinds of ills as people of color, with Jews of color experiencing racism of both kinds – both anti-black and anti-Semitic. But by and large, we Jews don’t face systemic discrimination. We don’t have to deal with mass incarceration, or police brutality, or workplace discrimination, or poverty, or terrible public schools that are failing due to disinvestment, or housing and healthcare shortages on nearly the same scale. By and large, Ashkenazi Jews who pass as white have been the beneficiaries of systemic racial injustice.
And yet, anti-Semitism persists. The idea that all Jews are rich is something you hear from even the most well meaning, though it’s of course also a staple of anti-Semitism and has resulted in a number of Jews being murdered in France this year.
It’s not just in France. Across Europe and here at home, an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents has many Jews worried. And it’s not just physical attacks. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labor Party, belonged to a rabidly anti-Semitic Facebook group. Neo-Nazis are organizing all over the United States, appearing in rallies as well as in the ranks of GOP hopefuls.
Anti-Semitism persists on the left and the right, and sometimes leaks out and attacks the bodies of Jews. In the past month alone four Orthodox Jews have been attacked either in street robberies – because all Jews are rich, right? – or in blatant, racially motivated hate crimes.
And yet, it’s difficult to get the left to react to these incidents, though to their credit, the Women’s March, and Sarsour and Mallory personally, have condemned the most recent attacks. Still, Orthodox Jews feel abandoned by those who stand up for others in similar situations.
I don’t believe it’s because they don’t care about Jews that the left can’t recognize anti-Semitism; if I did, I wouldn’t be writing this essay. The problem as I see it is not that Sarsour doesn’t want to eradicate anti-Semitism along with all other forms of oppression; I honestly believe that she does. The problem is that intersectionality has proven uniquely ill-equipped to do so.
There are a few reasons that the intersectional model struggles to find a place for Jews. For starters, anti-Jewish racism and anti-black racism are fundamentally different. They have different histories, which means they are enmeshed in society in different ways.
As John-Paul Pagano wrote convincingly in these pages, “regular racism — against blacks and Latinos, for example — is the opposite of anti-Semitism.” Both stem from xenophobia, writes Pagano, and yet racism against people of color comes from white people believing they are superior to people of color, while the hatred of Jews stems from the belief that Jews are a cabal with supernatural powers.
“Where the white racist regards blacks as inferior, the anti-Semite imagines that Jews have preternatural power to afflict humankind,” writes Pagano.
The “punching up” of anti-Semitism makes it all but invisible to some on the left, masquerading as it does as a kind of speaking truth to power. After all, it’s not a simple thing to understand that we Jews can be victims of oppression, too, overrepresented though we may be in the media and in politics.
This suggests a problem with the implementation of intersectionality as identity politics, rather than a core belief. And if this were the main issue, I would be calling for the reform of identity politics, rather than its abandonment.
But there’s another reason that the left is struggling to incorporate Jews that I think is harder to do away with. There’s a deep paradox in how Jews are treated on the left.
On the one hand, Jews are accused of not showing up in left-wing coalitions, or only showing up when we have skin the game, like after the Charlottesville, Virginia march, when it became clear that anti-Semitism was being normalized by the Trump administration.
On the other hand, Jews feel that when they do show up, there’s always something wrong with them. They are expected to check their Zionism at the door, for example, or to support a Black Lives Matter platform that accuses Israel of genocide (one can be very critical of Israel’s blatant civil and human rights violations and still feel that such an absurd overstatement would be impossible to endorse).
And like the ADL in the Starbucks affair, Jews have been sent packing from marches for showing up with Jewish symbols, like at the infamous Chicago Dyke March.
Of course, I understand far left organizers who wouldn’t want to include supporters of Zionism, which they view as a colonialist or even racist ideology. But even if you choose to view Zionism as racism, rather than as the belief in Jewish national self-determination, shouldn’t a coalition that has room for Louis Farrakhan also have room for Zionists? Plenty of Zionists disavow racism, whereas Louis Farrakhan makes no secret of his racist and homophobic views.
More importantly, given that the vast majority of Jews are Zionists, admitting that your movement has no room for Zionists is essentially admitting that no Jews – or few Jews – need apply.
This is not how human rights are supposed to work. It shouldn’t be about your beliefs but about your rights – indeed, your right to hold beliefs that others might find abhorrent. This is clearly a message that the Women’s March has internalized when it comes to Farrakhan. And yet when it comes to Zionism, which I personally don’t think is comparable to Farrakhan, suddenly there’s an ideological purity test.
Believers in intersectionality need to ask themselves: Do Zionists deserve protections? And if so, do Jews, the majority of whom are Zionists, belong in your coalitions?
I think the majority of social justice warriors would answer no to this, precisely because the intersectional answer is no. Intersectionality would dictate that the oppression of Palestinians is much worse than the oppression of Jews, and thus a much higher priority. This means that Jews with a belief system that Palestinians find abhorrent are not welcome in the movement – which means most Jews.
This is why I think intersectionality fundamentally, rather than practically, cannot truly protect Jews from anti-Semitism. It is at the end of the day a hierarchical structure, one that creates a hierarchy of oppression and determines levels of threat. And white Jews with their white privilege will remain on the back burner, along with their unfortunate beliefs.
Because it fights oppression instead of racism, intersectionality is fundamentally ill equipped to provide a model for equality – a model that would make sure that all are granted equal protections. For if your model doesn’t protect everyone, it doesn’t protect anyone – this is the unfortunate truth that America’s inequality has taught us. And it’s a truth intersectionality has not learned.
It’s not only because it can’t protect Jews that I think it’s time for the Left to evolve away from this paradigm. I think it’s also proven uniquely bad at protecting others, for the reasons that others have written about.
For starters, it doesn’t allow white people to enter the coalition and the fight against systemic racism except as guilty perpetrators of white supremacy. As Mark Lilla pointed out, identity politics is expressive rather than persuasive; its reach is limited to those who already feel compelled by injustice, yet it can’t convince a single person that they should be.
Then there’s the fact that identity politics gave us white nationalism. If you reduce people to their racial identity, this leaves white people with only one place to go, and it’s not a good one.
More importantly, as Arendt argued in “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, there is a tension between that which makes us unique and that which makes us equal; the private sphere, where we are different, single, unique, unchangeable, is a threat to the public sphere, where we are equals.
These private selves are what we today would call identities; they are our sexual orientation, our race, our gender identity; these make us unique and are by and large not subject to choice or change. On the other hand you have the public self — an artificial other realm where we are the same, and where we have chosen through a social contract to guarantee each other equality.
“Equality, in contrast to all that is involved in mere existence, is not given us, but is the result of human organization insofar as it is guided by the principle of justice,” writes Arendt. “We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.”
Equality for Arendt is only guaranteed by the existence of a public self that transcends the private self. If identity politics is based on the belief that the political realm should reflect that which makes us unique, Arendt sees in our identities only threats to the public sphere, threats to our ability to sustain justice and equality.
“Our political life rests on the assumption that we can produce equality through organization, because man can act in and change and build a common world, together with his equals and only with his equals,” writes Arnedt.
Arendt is not being naïve here; nor is she proposing a kind of “All Lives Matter”. On the contrary, Arendt’s beliefs stem from her own experience of being rendered stateless by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Arendt knows first hand what it means to be seen as subhuman. And it’s our tendency as humans to see humans who are different than us as subhuman that motivates this need for the public sphere.
Arendt specifically discusses what we today would call identity politics. If a black person living in a white community is reduced to his blackness and nothing else, he or she loses their freedom to act, she writes. “All his deeds are now explained as ‘necessary consequences’” of his being black, writes Arendt. It reduces him from a person with a public life to a mere specimen of the human species, much as a stateless person with no nationality to protect them is merely human, with no guaranteed rights.
Most importantly, it’s impossible to protect people’s rights on the grounds of their difference, since those rights are only guaranteed by their equality. And in cases like America in the 21st century, when a minority is not granted those rights, it’s upon this common ground that we must call, rather than insisting on differences.
This is why I believe we need to abandon identity politics and return to talking about the rights we all share. Focusing on rights, rather than identities, will inevitably prioritize black people and other minorities whose rights are simply not guaranteed in this country. But it would also enable Jews to participate in this struggle, and be protected by it, in ways they have not been able to, or not wanted to.
Rather than focusing on grievances particular to our bodies like race or gender, we ought to build coalitions around the rights we want guaranteed to all Americans: equality before the law and its enforcers; freedom of movement; the right to safety; the right to prosper. These are rights that are disproportionately denied to people of color, especially African Americans. And by centering the left around rights, rather than identity, we stand a better chance at building a coalition that can truly change things, as opposed to the fight against white supremacy — a state of being endemic to western society.
Centering ourselves as Jews is I believe the way out of the morass of identity politics and intersectionality, and the best way to ensure that black people are given the rights they deserve and are denied. If I am under threat for being a Jew, so is every American. But most importantly, if my black sister is not free, neither am I.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.